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Biography, Volume 31, Number 3, Summer 2008, pp. vii-xii (Article)

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DOI: 10.1353/bio.0.0027

For additional information about this article
http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/bio/summary/v031/31.3.mchugh.html

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SOMETHING OTHER THAN AUTOBIOGRAPHY:
COLLABORATIVE LIFE-NARRATIVES IN THE AMERICAS

— AN INTRODUCTION
KATHLEEN MCHUGH AND CATHERINE KOMISARUK

Writing erases the materiality of colonialism. Paper is colonialism, not the
record of it—it is it.
—Catherine Lord1
This cluster of essays, titled “Something Other Than Autobiography: Collaborative Life-Narratives in the Americas,” takes as its subject collaborative
life-narrative—whether it arises from coercive historical circumstances or is
freely chosen—as counter to autobiography, as what might define an alternative set of practices in the Americas. In the 1985 essay from which we take
the cluster’s title, James Olney asserted that the “prescribed, conventional,
and imposed form” of slave narratives made of them “something other than
autobiography” (168). Produced by a triangular collaboration of “narrator,
audience, and [abolitionist] sponsor” rather than by a creative individual actively and freely shaping “the patterned significance” of his life, slave narratives document “the reality of slavery,” and invariably recount the narrator’s
personal life according to the “interdependent and virtually indistinguishable
thematic strands . . . of literacy, identity, and freedom” (156). Thus these narratives document that literacy—access to the written word and the history of
inequality it encodes—is necessary not only to identity and any sense of freedom, but also to knowledge of “the reality of slavery.” Literacy’s contradictory
effects, as Frederick Douglass recognized, are to produce self-understanding
and the pain of this knowledge.
Similarly, this cluster of three essays shares an understanding that literacy
has enabled not only the exercise of identity and freedom, but also modern
conquests and colonialisms in the Americas. Artist and critic Catherine Lord
Biography 31.3 (Summer 2008) © Biographical Research Center

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Biography 31.3 (Summer 2008)

has observed that “paper is colonialism.” The technology of writing supplants and overrides the materiality of precolonial American cultures; print
and paper disallow evidence, accounts, objects, and voices that fall outside
of and cannot be converted to the colonizing regime of the literate. If, as
Lord asserts, paper and writing are modes of colonialism, the life-narratives
discussed in this cluster attempt to register a materiality that has not been or
could not be written, though kept alive by oral and embodied transmission.
Thus the lives featured in the essays are of the marginalized, but their narrative forms require collaboration with technologies of literacy.
We use the term “collaborative life-narrative” instead of “autobiography”
to signal our emphasis on the circumstances from which these narratives
arose. We are concerned especially with how these circumstances challenge
conventional rubrics of analysis and clear ascriptions of author, narrator, protagonist, narrative, and genre.2 While “collaboration” has arisen fairly recently as a critical concern in studies of Native American autobiography, and
also, somewhat differently, in Latin American testimonios,3 we believe that
collaborative forms of life-narrative in the Americas have ranged across historical moments, media, and subject positions—from the Mesoamerican dynastic glyphs and the conquerors’ crónicas to contemporary installation art
and self-narration in experimental film and video. Examples of this form
include indigenous codices and annals, slave narratives, Inquisition records
and judicial depositions, captivity narratives, religious confessions, commonplace books, “as told to” accounts, testimonios, ethnographies, oral histories,
and genealogies. Contemporary writers, artists, and critics working in prose,
installation art, cinema, video, and visual and performance art frequently
choose collaborative modes of working, often to put forth and simultaneously
render ambiguous their representations of subjectivity, cooperation, history,
and/or authenticity within the life-narratives they construct.
As these examples indicate, we interpret “collaboration” broadly, in ways
that include all the nuances and interpretations of the word as well as aspects
of its history as a critical term. With “labor” nestled in its middle, “collaboration” calls forth both positive and negative senses of working together. It
can mean variously “to work together in a joint intellectual or aesthetic activity,” and also “treasonable cooperation” with an enemy. The ambiguity
of the term apprehends the diverse possibilities of and/or constraints upon
expression often within hostile contact zones that this cluster of essays addresses. “Collaboration” can apply to life-narratives produced jointly by two
or more people (in “as told to” or “ghostwritten” productions), as well as
those articulated within political circumstances that compelled the narrators
to cooperate or collude with governments, people, ideas, images, stereotypes,

McHugh and Komisaruk, Something Other Than Autobiography

ix

materials, funding institutions, and/or representational modes alien to them
and to their manner of expression. It includes relations of complicity and of
symbiosis. “Collaboration” can also refer to contexts of production, contexts
involving negotiations with institutions such as museums or foundations.
And “collaboration” can describe conceptual and material interactions, as in
life-narratives mediated through objects and artifacts. In this work, the self
that results from the engagement of a subject with objects—a collaboration
lacking two discrete agents—articulates a subjectivity outside of conventional
forms of narrative and narration.
Though certainly not limited to the Americas, collaborative forms of lifenarrative in this hemisphere arose from the particular historical circumstances
of early modern trans-Atlantic conquest and the resulting contact zones. These
zones are described by Mary Louise Pratt as “social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other often in highly asymmetrical
relations of domination and subordination—like colonialism, slavery, or their
aftermaths as they are lived out across the globe today” (4). As Pratt and many
others have observed, autobiographical modes of expression are as frequently
associated with those speaking from positions of subordination as from domination.4 Within multiple geographically and temporally distinct contact zones
in the Americas, collaborative life-narrative emerges as a form of both collusion and contestation, as an instrument of domination and of resistance.
This cluster of essays seeks to explicate these forms and functions, partly
by identifying the structures of power in particular cultures where various lifenarratives were produced. The essays contextualize diverse life-narratives within often overlapping (and often competing) spheres—temporal, geographic,
cultural, national, and political—in the Americas. Because these essays read a
range of narratives as subversive of conventional critical understandings of the
autobiographical, they complicate the concept of life-narrative. But they argue
not only for the diversity of autobiographical forms. They also demonstrate
patterns in collaborative relationships concerning the dynamics of control and
subjugation, of silence and expression, that appear across a range of media
forms and contexts.
Catherine Komisaruk’s “Rape Narratives, Rape Silences: Sexual Violence
and Judicial Testimony in Colonial Guatemala” considers court cases from the
archives of late colonial Guatemala. Komisaruk reads litigants’ depositions as
a form of collaborative life-narrative; depositions were spoken aloud by plaintiffs, witnesses, and defendants, and were simultaneously transcribed by Spanish government notaries. Thus, at its core, the study deals with the paper body
of colonialism. Surveying the testimonies of rape survivors, the essay demonstrates that there were very few circumstances in which sexual assaults were

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Biography 31.3 (Summer 2008)

viewed by colonial law and mentalidades as criminal. Presumably, therefore,
most rapes were never documented. Because dominant thinking determined
which charges would be brought and which cases would be heard in the
courts, colonial ideologies ultimately determined which plaintiffs’ testimonies would be recorded and archived. Komisaruk argues that the colonial
state compelled women’s (and other litigants’) collaboration not only in certain understandings of sexual violence, but also in the production of the historical record of Spanish American life more generally.
Julia Watson’s essay, “‘As Gay and as Indian as They Chose’: Collaboration and Counter-Ethnography in In the Land of the Grasshopper Song,” illuminates multiple complexities in collaborative life-writing. Watson analyzes
Mary Ellicott Arnold and Mabel Reed’s In the Land of the Grasshopper Song:
Two Women in the Klamath River Indian Country in 1908–09. Their work
takes the form of a journal in which Arnold records their experience of colonial contact between whites and indigenous people prior to the 1910 US appropriation of native lands in what is now northwestern California. Arnold
and Reed function as amateur ethnographers, interacting with Karuk Indians
as well as with white settlers and government agents; they narrate a complex
tale of encounters and negotiations, though suppressing that of their lesbian
relationship. Thus their overt collaboration masked a more private one in the
narrative’s multilayered relationships. Watson argues that Arnold and Reed
construct complicated speaking positions in relation to the native population, their white cohort, and between themselves, illuminating the various
modes of collaboration that can emerge from a coproduced text: co-optation,
coercion, collusion, cooperation, collectivity, compromise, and camouflage.
Lastly, Kathleen McHugh’s “Profane Illuminations: History and Collaboration in James Luna and Isaac Artenstein’s The History of the Luiseño People”
focuses on a video project that is collaborative for a number of reasons, ranging from the artists’ choice to work together to the piece’s seeming collusion
with Native American stereotypes. Made by indigenous performance artist
James Luna and Chicano film- and video-maker Isaac Artenstein, the video translates a theatrically-staged autobiographical performance by Luna to
moving image media by Artenstein. Paradoxically, in capturing and thereby
transforming the ephemeral quality of Luna’s performance art, the video allegorizes the loss of a material history that could or would register its story. Depicting Luna smoking, drinking, and watching TV while making phone calls
to family and friends on Christmas Day 1990, the video seems to proffer the
everyday and stereotypical in perplexing relation to the historiographical ambition of its title. In that perplexing relation, however, Luna and Artenstein
fully exploit performance art and artisanal video’s respective engagements with

McHugh and Komisaruk, Something Other Than Autobiography

xi

collaborative life-narratives to embody and enact the fundamental problems
of history and self-representation confronting indigenous people.
Together, these three essays suggest the range and longevity of a set of
practices, counter to traditional autobiographical narration, that arose in the
Americas from the material circumstances of colonialism. While Komisaruk’s
essay documents the conditions that enabled some accounts of sexual violence to emerge while others were disallowed, Watson’s indicates the collaborations and collusions involved in one set of stories and interactions standing
in for and masking another. McHugh’s essay elaborates an instance where
contemporary artists use structures of collaboration to apprehend the effects
of a colonial history similar to those with which Komisaruk and Watson contend. In all the examples, what emerge from the respective authors’ research
and critical engagement with archival records, print text, or experimental
video are absences, lacunae, collusions, and compromises whose meanings
cannot be directly read, but only inferred and pieced together. They articulate something other than autobiography.
NOTES

1.
2.

3.
4.

Personal conversation with Catherine Lord.
On issues of authorship and narrator in autobiography, see Smith and Watson, “Introduction,” De/Colonizing the Subject xxvi–xxvii, and “Introduction,” Getting a Life 22
n.12.
See, for example, Behar, Rios and Mullen, Beverley, Sommer, and Noriega.
See, for example, Beverley, “Margin” 12–13; Perkins 8–14; Pratt 5; Smith 20; Smith
and Watson, “Introduction,” De/Colonizing xix–xxi; Smith and Watson, Women, Autobiography, Theory 28; and Wong 171.
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